books with diverse characters

Reading can be transformational. As educators, we must put books in the hands of students that reflect both their own experiences as well as the experiences of others. Introducing books with diverse characters is vital for the growth of readers in the classroom.

It has been nearly 30 years since Rudine Sims Bishop’s seminal essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” was published. The essay highlighted the lack of children’s books with diverse characters and themes and called for books to act as windows and mirrors that would allow all children to see themselves and the experiences of others in what they read. 

Bishop writes: “Children from dominant social groups have always found their mirrors in books, but they, too, have suffered from the lack of availability about others. They need the books as windows onto reality, not just on imaginary worlds. They need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans. . . If they see only reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world—a dangerous ethnocentrism.”[1]  

Sadly, recent data reveals that 30 years after Rudine Sims Bishop’s call to action, there is still work to be done to provide students with the window and mirrors that will allow children to question the assumptions and practices of our own world.

Starting in 2014, the number of diverse books being published increased substantially. And in 2017, the number jumped to 31%2. However, while the number of diverse books increases substantially, the number of books written by people of color still is unrepresentative of the population of children authors write for. In 2017, Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote just 7% of new children’s books published. The majority of books, whether they feature diverse characters or not, are still written by white authors.[2]

The responsibility to provide students with books that offer windows and mirrors can feel like an overwhelming one, but many resources exist to support this process. Check out the work of these organizations:

Additionally, as you are selecting texts for your school or classroom, consider the following questions, adapted from Lee & Low Books, The Open Book Blog, to help guide your purchases in the right direction: 

  • What’s my student’s background knowledge of this book’s topic? How could his or her experiences be different than mine?
  • Does this book present a stereotype or narrow view of a particular group or type of experience?
  • How could I leverage my students’ cultural knowledge to help them understand this book?

With Christmas just around the corner, now is the perfect time to stock up on some new books to introduce to your classroom to ensure that all of your students’ experiences are represented. If you need tips on how to stock up your classroom library without breaking the bank, check out a few of our tips.

Reference List

[1]Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.
[2]Data on books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This post was written by Kristin Braatz, the assistant director of our graduate literacy program. 

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